Blueberries are big business in Michigan. But the U-choice tradition lives on.

Jane Riddle plucks a plump cranberry from the bush and drops it into a bucket full of fruit.

“It’s a tradition,” she said. “I always try to come to opening day if I can.”

Riddle, who spent childhood summers picking blueberries in western Michigan and now lives in Grand Haven, showed up on the first day Crossroads Blueberry Market operated its U-Pick field. People strolled through the rows and rows of tall bushes on Friday, July 15, mouthing berries and buying buckets of fresh fruit.

“You can just grab a handful and eat,” Riddle said as she twisted a loose berry.

It’s officially blueberry season in Michigan.

This week farms across the state are preparing to harvest millions of pounds of blueberries as they open their fields to U-pick customers.

“We’re expecting a good season, anticipating a good crop,” said Amber DeHaan, who runs Crossroads Blueberry Market in West Olive with her husband and parents.

Crossroads Blueberry Market harvests approximately 600 acres of blueberries on a farm 30 miles west of Grand Rapids. An on-site processing facility prepares three million pounds of berries each season for distribution to major grocery store chains such as Meijer, Kroger and Walmart.

But in front of the big commercial operation lies a small field buzzing with activity.

It’s where Carissa Dreese and her 3-year-old son Lucas, of Grand Haven, hunt for the biggest berry, where Jane and Dan Riddle picked two buckets of the fruit to load into homemade pie, coffee cake and French toast and where families can pick their own blueberries for $2 a pound.

“I always tell people, ‘Make sure you bring your buckets and fill your bellies,'” DeHaan said.

Connected: How to harvest wild blueberries in Michigan’s Hiawatha National Forest

Although blueberries are a huge industry, many farms maintain the U-Pick tradition.

Blueberry farming has a $530 million economic impact in Michigan, according to the USA Highbush Blueberry Council, employing over 6,600 people and generating $10 million in business taxes.

As one of the nation’s largest growers, Michigan produced about 72 million pounds of blueberries last year on 16,000 acres of farmland. About half of the berries are sold fresh at farmers markets, grocery stores or through U-pick while the other half is processed for the frozen or value-added market.

“Overall, it’s clear that blueberry growers play an important role in strengthening Michigan’s economic climate. Their activities are widespread throughout the economy, affecting almost every aspect of life in the state,” said a report by the US Highbush Blueberry Council.

About 575 family farms drive this economic engine.

At Reenders Blueberry Farm, where 800 acres of bushes are spread over two properties in West Olive and Spring Lake, a red-lettered wooden sign is planted in the ground: “U-Pick Here.”

The 66-year-old family farm distributes fresh, frozen and processed berries nationwide, but manager Chad Reenders invites people to stop in, grab a bucket and fill it with sweet blueberries.

“I’m always excited and worried,” he said. “You work for nine months to grow perfect blueberries. It’s always a pleasure to see customers with smiling faces, eating the biggest they can find and getting a 10-pound box of blueberries or getting a bucket and saying, “We’ll be back next week.”

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Many blueberry farms are concentrated in Michigan’s fruit ridge along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Sandy, acidic soils in Ottawa, Allegan and Van Buren counties provide fertile ground for blueberry blooms.

Blueberries can be spread throughout Michigan with smaller farms located in the eastern counties.

In Saginaw County, blueberries have been grown on an 8-acre farm for more than 80 years.

“There’s nothing better than blueberries fresh off the bush,” said Fran Hunt, assistant manager at Schantz’s Blueberries.

Hunt’s parents bought the farm in 1972 about three decades after the first bushes were planted on the property. It’s been a family operation ever since, now run by Hunt and four of her sisters.

Schantz’s Blueberries is U-Pick only: no automatic pickers and no machines.

“I think it’s important that people have the opportunity to pick the berries they want,” she said. “At our farm, we let customers pick where they want to pick and they can taste the different varieties that we have because each blueberry variety has a different flavor.”

More than 30 varieties of blueberries grow in Michigan, according to Michigan State University. A popular variety for U-Pick is the Bluecrop – a sweet and sour fruit that tends to bloom mid-season.

For DeHaan and her family, who have been growing blueberries for four generations, they keep the U-pick field running so people can learn about growing blueberries and leave with smiles on their faces.

“We just want them to come and see the farm. We want them to bring their kids, teach them how a farm works and how blueberries grow on the bush,” DeHaan said. “It’s to provide a way for kids and families to come out and do an activity that connects them to agriculture.”

Michigan’s blueberry harvest runs from mid-July to early September.

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